New healthcare facility safety bill a big win for nursing employees

In a laudable effort to address a longstanding crisis in the nursing industry, yesterday Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced the Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act. It’s not an accident that the bill’s introduction comes the same month as the 45th anniversary of President Nixon signing the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 — the law establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create and enforce workplace safety and health standards. If enacted, the bill would improve healthcare facility safety in a big way. Specifically, it would direct the Department of Labor to issue a standard requiring healthcare employers to implement safe patient handling programs in their facilities. These programs are critical in preventing injuries among nursing employees because they use patient lifting equipment such as lifts and slide boards to take the strain of lifting and moving patients off of workers’ backs.

{mosads}The statistics on injuries for nursing employees are disturbing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nurses and healthcare workers suffer more injuries requiring time away from work than members of any other profession in the United States. What’s causing these injuries? A closer look at BLS data on nursing assistants reveals that preventable musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) account for more than half of the injuries requiring these workers to take time off of work.

MSDs are overexertion injuries to the muscles, nerves and tendons of the limbs and lower back. Nurses and other healthcare workers often develop MSDs from lifting and moving patients manually on a regular basis. The effects of the injuries are often devastating and career-ending. Nursing employees experience lasting chronic pain and reduced mobility, and those who can no longer fulfill significant lifting duties due to their injuries are often at risk of losing their jobs.

Despite the daunting statistics, these injuries are largely preventable. Employers can protect their employees by implementing safe patient handling programs in their facilities.

However, while employers that have implemented these programs have successfully reduced injuries among nursing staff, few have done so. Some healthcare representatives oppose the programs due to upfront costs associated with retrofitting outdated patient rooms with new equipment. These concerns, however, are shortsighted. Studies show that safe patient handling programs consistently recoup their expenses within approximately four years due to lower workers’ compensation costs and other savings from keeping their employees happy and healthy.

While OSHA has undertaken efforts to draw attention to the issue, David Michaels, assistant secretary of the Department of Labor and OSHA head, has stated that he believes OSHA is virtually prohibited from issuing any substantive rule making safe patient handling programs the national standard without a federal law in place.

Nursing employees cannot continue to wait for change. Congress must pass the Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act to make workplaces safer for nursing employees across the country.

Gilbert is director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and manager of the Bright Lines Project.

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